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Immigration was a focal point for the leave side’s campaign to part ways with the European Union. Although there were many other issues up for discussion, the free movement of people was at the heart of the debate. According to Will Somerville, the UK senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, “The political message from the referendum is for more control on immigration.” With the ‘leave’ side claiming victory with a 52 percent to 48 percent majority, how will this message be translated into policy?
The UK saw a sharp increase in immigration in 1997 when Tony Blair’s Labour Party swept into power and transformed the UK’s immigration policy. Reihan Salam addresses this transformative time in British history in Slate magazine: “British society has been transformed by a wave of immigration unprecedented in its history. Over the following years, roughly twice as many immigrants arrived in the United Kingdom as had arrived in the previous half-century.”
Coupled with the freedom of movement across EU member states, this led to a sharp increase in movement to the UK and a response ranging from anxiety about the strain on public services to outright xenophobia and a call for a complete stop to immigration. It’s important to note that a lot of people welcome the newcomers with open arms, or are comfortable with the trade-off between access to an open market in exchange for the freedom of movement.
In 2010, newly elected Prime Minister, David Cameron put in place plans to control immigration. However, this was largely unsuccessful as his plans did not extend to family unifications, international students and highly-skilled workers. Last year, of the 300,000 people who came to the UK to stay for one year or more, there was roughly an even split between citizens from within the EU and those from elsewhere.
The challenge for the next UK leader will be to prove that they can deliver on the immigration promises made by leave campaigners. The question that remains is: what will this cost the country? Although other countries have successfully navigated trade routes into Europe’s single market without being part of the EU, they can only do so by offering freedom of movement to EU citizens. Norway is one example of a country which isn’t part of the EU, but has access to the single market, which they gain in exchange for offering freedom of movement to EU citizens. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has already stated: “There will be no single market a la carte.” By this, he means that the UK will not be able to pick and choose which aspects of the European Union it wants to subscribe to, and leave out the rest.
It isn’t only future freedom of movement which is at stake, as there is also the issue of the 3 million EU nationals already settled in the UK, and the 1.4 million UK nationals settled across Europe. Although their position is uncertain, it seems unlikely that they will be expelled all together. According to Somerville, one possible outcome would be “a shift toward more qualifications, higher-income, higher-skilled workers.” This, in turn, would result in a reduction of workers from within Europe. Although, this will lead to an increase in people trying to get around the system, either through illegal immigration or family reunions.
Of course, all of this is just speculation until the UK decides to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which marks the starting point for two years of negotiations to untangle the UK from the European Union. It remains to be seen if a deal can be found which will allow the UK access to the single market while also delivering on the leave campaign’s promise to limit immigration.
Following the recent news, as always we’re here to help if you have any questions or issues that you’re unsure about. With so much uncertainty surrounding the leave result, we understand it can be a worrying time so that’s why we urge you to contact us if there is anything at all you need further advice or support on.